Lou Kren Lou Kren
Senior Editor

Returning to a Different Normal

March 1, 2022


Traveling to Formnext this past November as well as to other industry events has made it clear that we are emerging from the dark shadows of the pandemic and returning to normal, although what constitutes normal is up for debate. In a lifestyle, society and workplace sense, the new normal has been covered extensively, but how will additive manufacturing (AM) and its role in industry change?

Early on in the pandemic, an article in Nature hit the nail on the head.

“3D printing enables on-demand solutions for a wide spectrum of needs ranging from personal protection equipment to medical devices and isolation wards,” the article summary reads. “This versatile technology is suited to address supply/demand imbalances caused by socio-economic trends and disruptions in supply chains.”

When COVID-19 necessitated rapid production of all sorts of medical products, AM stepped up big time, with AM machine and service providers, as well as other stakeholders, forming networks to address urgent manufacturing needs. Safe to say that AM, with its inherent flexibility, proved most worthwhile here and will be a go-to process during supply-chain disruptions in future years.

Beyond a just-in-time solution, AM should continue making strides in both remote and serial production. At RAPID + TCT and Formnext last year, industry players constantly discussed these production challenges, with products and services coming online to meet them. Expect, as digital manufacturing matures, machines worldwide to link and build products as needed, with serial production providing the output power to produce in increasing volumes. 

AM also should evolve to more fully adopt philosophies, such as lean, that have shaped traditional manufacturing operations.

“Lean thinking creates the opportunity to evolve to solve complex challenges head on,” writes Richard Lebovitz, founder and chief executive officer of LeanDNA, which provides a purpose-built analytics platform for factory inventory management, in a recent Medtech Intelligence article on the future of medical-device production. “To ensure business continuity as we move beyond the health crisis, medical-device manufacturers should embrace a new model that balances lean practices with visibility, accountability and actionability in the factory—where disruptions and opportunities first come to life.”

Incidentally, AM offers a means to address just-in-time issues that have caused some manufacturers to reconsider the whole idea of lean in a time of broken supply chains. Inventory levels have crept up across the manufacturing landscape as timely supply has become a less-than-sure thing. Now available to manufacturers is software that reads and stores digital files for spare parts, production parts and other components, making them AM-ready. This allows access to what’s needed when needed, which can ease some supply-chain pressures.

Of course, as AM takes on more tasks and higher volumes and skilled workers remain elusive, another traditional manufacturing go-to is making inroads in 3D printing: automation—relating to both machinery and data.

“Many companies today are dealing with the new norm—less skilled human resources available relative to years past to keep up with rising demand,” offers Jerry Foster, Plex Systems co-founder and chief technology officer, in a recent Forbes article. “Automating production processes is a necessary step because it will save time, reduce errors and produce huge results.

“The manufacturing environment is incredibly dynamic,” Foster adds. “Automating data collection and visualizations to produce valuable insights such as efficiency, throughput and uptime are keys to achieving a competitive advantage in today’s new manufacturing reality.”

Yes, the new normal in AM should be quite a ride.

Industry-Related Terms: Additive manufacturing
View Glossary of 3D Metal Printing Terms

Technologies: Management

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